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My sepsis experience: recovering from sepsis after a challenging birth
In February 2006, journalist and author Vanessa Holborn gave birth to her first daughter.
But within three weeks, she found herself in Intensive Care, battling for her life.
In this post, Vanessa shares her sepsis story, discussing how failings from medical professionals led to her physical deterioration and how her experience completely changed how she felt about motherhood - and still impacts her to this day.
Three weeks after delivering my first daughter by emergency C-section, I was taken by ambulance to my local hospital and placed in Intensive Care.
I had been suffering since delivery with various symptoms that I later discovered could and should have been picked up and dealt with immediately. I am incredibly lucky to be alive, and my husband was told at the time to prepare for the worst.
During the delivery, my daughter had become wedged in the birth canal and had to be dragged back up. This caused my womb to tear in several places and, at some point during this, my bladder received some trauma and went into shock.
About five days after being discharged from hospital, I was going to the toilet constantly but only a small amount of urine was coming out.
Something wasn’t right
I completely lost my appetite and had no energy. I was also very aware that my pregnancy bump was not going down, but actually getting bigger.
I'm afraid to say all of these symptoms were ignored by the community midwife who visited just once after the birth, despite the fact I had a very complicated delivery.
Many NICE guidelines had been ignored, including the fact my waters broke five days before I went into labour naturally - I should have been induced after 48 hours!
Luckily, a health visitor did pay me a routine visit and I told her I had become breathless and asked if that could be the antibiotics I had been prescribed for mastitis.
She felt that something wasn't right and asked me to call the local GP. A locum at my GP examined me, ran all the usual tests and also felt my abdomen.
He said he could feel my womb hadn't gone back to where it should be and that he was calling an ambulance to take me straight to hospital. It was the health visitor and this locum that effectively saved my life.
When I arrived at the hospital it was immediately noticed that my bladder was full of septic liquid. Things happened pretty quickly then and they put a catheter in to get the urine out, before taking me to intensive care, putting a 'line' into my neck and giving me antibiotics.
The doctors said my kidneys had effectively stopped working and that strictly speaking I should be dead. They didn't really have an explanation as to why I was still alive and comparatively 'well'. The other people in intensive care were mostly unconscious.
What has your experience been like since recovering?
Recovery while in the hospital was utterly miserable.
I couldn't have my newborn with me in intensive care, and I had been breastfeeding, so my husband had to rush out to buy a breast pump. Then the doctors told me I couldn't give her the milk because of the drugs I was taking anyway.
Visitors were quite restricted in intensive care too.
After a few days I was put onto a urology ward with lots of men that had prostate problems. I still wasn't allowed my daughter and it was hell.
I remember writhing in agony with back pain and then being given morphine and being sick because of that. I still had a catheter all this time so that my bladder could recover from the shock of it all.
The nights were long and lonely
At this stage it wasn't clear if my bladder would recover, or if my kidneys had been damaged, which was obviously very scary.
I would say at this point I was very depressed and burst into tears when I got to see my daughter, again visiting time was restrictive and the nights were long and lonely.
Because my case was so unusual I didn't really fit anywhere in the hospital. Eventually my own mum had a bit of a go at the hospital and I was moved back to the maternity ward and into a private room there so that I could have my daughter with me. I was monitored every day with a portable scanner so they could see that my bladder was okay.
Eventually I was discharged but had to be taught how to 'self-catheterise' - I basically had to check that my bladder was emptying properly by inserting a catheter in every now and again, and measuring everything I drank with everything that came out.
I then had to go to an outpatient clinic where they measured how strong my 'flow' was when I peed.
It was a long, slow process, and I worried I'd be doing this for the rest of my life. Meanwhile I was a new mum, coping with all that too. It was an intensely happy time but the shine was taken off of it by the shadow of potential disability.
How has sepsis impacted your life since recovery?
Sepsis did impact my enjoyment of becoming a mother. For ages I did not want to use the road that passed the hospital, it made me feel ill, sad and cross when I saw it.
I found it hard to shake the feeling that I had somehow cheated death and it would come back to take me away from my daughter.
I also felt incredibly cross with the medical staff that delayed my C-section (the 'women make such a fuss/too posh to push' crew who thought all deliveries should be natural), the medical staff that didn't bother to check I was okay after a ridiculously complicated labour and let me totter home already ill, and the midwife who thought I just needed to drink more and that I couldn't expect to shrink back to my pre-pregnancy size quickly.
If I had died, they would undoubtedly have faced questions.
I went on to have a second daughter. I refused to have any appointments with the same midwife and I was under consultant care because of the tears to my womb.
I returned to the same hospital for delivery (signs about guidelines changed after my case were displayed by then).
Of course I was very worried about being catheterised post-op again (which is routine) and about whether my bladder would go into shock again.
I can't say I received any extra support.
Even my own GP didn’t apologise and just said I'd ‘slipped through the cracks'.
I went often to the GP after the second baby, anxious that I had picked up a urine infection again, and was given some pH testing sticks so I could test samples at home.
I got an apology from an unconnected doctor once who said “I am sorry you had to go through that” when I explained why I was so nervous about having a routine smear.
It was really important to me to hear that but ironic that it came from someone that had no involvement in my case and therefore no reason to apologise. I've always suspected those involved felt that if they apologised I might have sued.
What, if any, positives have come from your experience?
If I'm honest, my experience changed my attitudes towards doctors and other medical staff.
I am very outspoken if I feel they are wrong or not listening now. I will always push for more information and question them. I'm aware that mistakes are made, and that the wrong call can kill people.
Recently my younger daughter was incorrectly diagnosed with asthma. I could see the inhalers they dished out weren't working and that she was getting worse (she's 11 and very sporty, she was coughing all the time, couldn't sleep and all her energy was fading away).
I kept badgering the surgery, refusing to accept 'it would get better with time'. It turns out she had whooping cough and they missed the window to treat her appropriately.
I pushed for a test to confirm whooping cough with Public Health England, as it is a notifiable disease.
The doctor that had been sceptical about my suggestion had to ring me herself to give me the positive test results. I'm a strong advocate for my daughters now.
What advice would you give to people who are in recovery?
I think it's important for everyone to be clear about the symptoms of sepsis, so they can look after themselves and those that are close to them, so learn them in case you ever need them.
Never be afraid to ask if a condition is sepsis, and always remember that you know what is 'normal' for you or your loved one, so if you have any doubts about a diagnosis, treatment or level of recovery voice your concerns as much as you need to.
I also think that if you've had a traumatic health event, and feel you need to talk about it, then you should - either to your GP, a trusted friend or a support group.
I am completely recovered from sepsis, and once I received treatment, the sepsis was over and done with very quickly.
Luckily, I was very healthy when I went into hospital, as I had a very healthy lifestyle and pregnancy prior to that.
Unfortunately, sepsis hit me at a very vulnerable time, and the complications around my delivery that caused the sepsis took some time to recover from.
The experience of receiving what I consider to be inadequate post-delivery and op care leading to sepsis, however, was very traumatic.
I'm very strong emotionally but I will always feel a whole ton of resentment towards those that let me down at that important point in my life.
I'm really glad that campaigners like Melissa Mead are working to raise sepsis awareness - it's deadly but treatable - and I'd like to see it eradicated.